Activists outraged at Austria trial of corruption 'informer'

A private detective who helped orchestrate a scandal that brought down the Austrian government went on trial on Wednesday, in a drug trafficking case activists say is being used to silence him.

The coalition government collapsed when a secretly filmed video emerged in 2019 showing vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache appearing to offer public contracts to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch in exchange for help with his far-right party’s campaign.

Private investigator Julian Hessenthaler told a parliamentary inquiry earlier this year he conceived the idea of the video, filmed on the Spanish island of Ibiza in 2017.

Hessenthaler was arrested in December last year in Berlin and extradited to Austria on charges of selling more than a kilogramme (2.2 pounds) of cocaine in 2017 and 2018.

The 40-year-old, who went on trial in Sankt Poelten west of Vienna on Wednesday, denies the accusation, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail.

His lawyer Oliver Scherbaum has called the charges “trumped up accusations to eliminate those who denounce corruption in politics”.

Activists said prosecutors had adopted an “excessive manner in order to silence Julian Hessenthaler”.  

“Apparently, he is made an example of in order to deter potential future informers from expressing their opinion freely,” Thomas Lohninger of Austrian group said in a statement released by 15 NGOs, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.

The Ibiza vide caused a huge scandal when it was released in May 2019.

Strache’s decision to quit torpedoed the alliance between his far-right Freedom Party and the conservatives of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Strache was hit with a 15-month suspended prison sentence for corruption last month in one of the inquiries stemming from the “Ibizagate” scandal. He is appealing the verdict.

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